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Olympian games
Cupid rules Neil Bartlett’s Dido

Virgil’s Aeneid centers on Aeneas. Purcell widens the focus to include Dido, who’s tragically ditched when her Trojan inamorato prioritizes the founding of Rome. And Christopher Marlowe puts the proud queen front and center, calling his fiercely poetic and precocious 1585 play Dido, Queen of Carthage. In the words of Marlowe biographer David Riggs, "She alone speaks with the voice of desire that would become the trademark of Marlowe’s tragic heroes."

But British director Neil Bartlett, gay artist and Renaissance man of the theater, here helming a rare revival of Marlowe’s work for the American Repertory Theatre, shifts the focus of the play to rogue catalyst Cupid, who controls everything from the curtains to the lighting. And in the arresting person of Obie- and Bessie-winning performance artist John Kelly, the valentine boy is no chubby cherub but an eerily impassive bird-winged nudie in a red-and-gold loincloth, wreaking havoc in men’s lives for the pure hell of it, either because mommy Venus tells him to or just because he wants to see what happens. He’s like a child touching a stove, except that, whether you’re talking carnal lust or sacrificial fire, it’s others who feel the heat.

"As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods,/They kill us for their sport," wrote Shakespeare, the bard Marlowe (who was born the same year) might, more justifiably than Shaw, have called "the other one." In Dido, Queen of Carthage, the 21-year-old author’s polymorphous-perverse borrowing from Virgil, the Olympians’ sports include homosexual dalliance, maternal rigging, impersonation of a child, intimations of pedophilia, and nation building by proxy. Caught amid their whims and rivalries, the play’s mortal characters, even its ambivalent Trojan hero and love-struck Carthaginian queen, are hardly captains of their ships, whether grievously wrecked or rigged with "tacklings made of rivelled gold."

At the Loeb Drama Center, where the play’s action is intermittently accompanied by a sidestage trio of viols (violas da gamba), the show begins with the slow descent of Cupid, who drops a short red cape to display his winged torso, down a spiral stair. Dancing precisely with arched back, Kelly, with his golden bow, assumes a shooting pose before whisking away the bare-stage light to usher on Jupiter (Will LeBow), here an old-and-gold lecher in an open shirt romancing his tight-blue-jeaned "cup bearer" and boy toy, Ganymede (Clark Huggins). Bartlett and designer Rae Smith, eschewing stage decoration, present the play as an illusion, a bare-bones masque if you will, unfolding in the room that is the Loeb, on a big black stage dotted with bits of red and gold. It proves an odd choice, given the heightened, oft-ravishing language of the work and the elaborateness of the costumes, both tacky and grand, to make the stage picture so vast and grubby to look at.

In the script, it’s Jupiter who gets the godly games going, pissing off wife Juno, already no fan of Ilium, by offering her wedding jewels to his young Trojan paramour (who in exchange offers to "hug with you an hundred times"). No one could claim Bartlett was superimposing a gay overlay on Marlowe’s play, which was probably written for the Blackfriars’ Chapel Children, a troupe of young male actors later described by playwright Thomas Middleton as "a nest of boys able to ravish a man." The director, however, carries the play’s sensibility over into camp, offering in Thomas Derrah a Juno in Mae West drag, in Remo Airaldi an elderly nurse of Dido’s entourage whose no-nonsense matron’s suit gets ripped open to reveal a big black bra, and even a Venus (Saundra McClain) with serious attitude who at one point addresses Juno as "Sistah!" Derrah’s cameo as the blond-curled, bare-chested, and bejeweled Juno is funny, but the juxtaposition of stylized epic tragedy and camp comedy makes for a jarring disconnect in a work that, more pageant than play, already lacks flow. Here, it seems, we gambol among Virgil and Ovid, Tina Turner and Bette Midler, Samuel Beckett and Mark Morris, only to wind up witnessing serial suicide.

Still, the now stately, now trashy ART staging provides a rare opportunity to see an almost unknown work by a very well-known dramatist (who would go on to write such masterpieces as Dr. Faustus and Edward II while carrying on a double life in espionage before being dying in suspicious circumstances at the age of 29). And Bartlett’s ideas are smart, even when their results prove jarring. His best brainstorm is Kelly’s magnetizing Cupid, off whom it’s difficult to take your eye, even when he’s compellingly, quizzically still.

In the play, Aeneas is shipwrecked on the North African shore, accompanied by a small gaggle of surviving Trojans who include his young son Ascanius (Ezra Lichtman). Whereupon Cupid, on Venus’s orders, bewitches the fiercely independent Dido into loving Aeneas by transforming himself into Ascanius and cuddling up close enough to the monarch to pierce her with his little arrow. (Venus puts the real Ascanius to sleep in a verdant grove, where he dreams of sweetmeats while guarded by doves.) At the Loeb, Kelly’s Cupid snaps his fingers and a red curtain passes before the sleeping Ascanius, leaving naught in its wake but the boy’s striped pajamas (left over, perhaps, from Mark Rylance’s ART Hamlet?). Another pass of the curtain reveals Cupid, as Ascanius, in a bigger but identical pair, all dressed up and ready to do mischief. In his guise as the innocent child, Cupid slips under Dido’s skirts, sings a haunting countertenor tune set with verses from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander that he claims he learned in Troy from "cousin Helen," and with his omnisexuality gets under the monarch’s skin. As in his later scene with the old nurse, maternal figure and boy child seem drawn toward something carnal, from which the woman, not understanding her attraction, pulls back at the last minute.

Cupid may have his quiver of tricks, but it is Dido and Aeneas who lay claim to the play’s greatest poetry. To the regal Dido, who’s turned almost shrewish by her threatened love, returning ART veteran and Stratford Festival of Canada associate artist Diane D’Aquila brings a gorgeously throaty set of pipes on which Marlowe’s poetry sounds rich but natural. Neither does D’Aquila shrink from the character’s quicksilver change, once wounded by Cupid, from self-possession to cavalier rule, love-slavishness, and the sort of frantic jealousy that finds her hoarding (not to mention straddling) Aeneas’s sails to keep him from taking off for Italy. (It’s not her fault that this desperate snit draws laughs.) And Colin Lane presents an interesting, unusual Aeneas, war-traumatized, almost hangdog, yet both brave and sad in his forced abandonment of Dido. A warrior and gods’ plaything at once, he brings a shell-shocked, incredulous pain to his great, vivid speech (alluded to in Hamlet) outlining the violent fall of Troy and makes it clear that, were he his own man, Sophia Loren and the pope would currently reside in Northern Africa.

There is solid support from Gregory Simmons as an Iarbas as formal as the production, coolly wearing his white satin muffler, extracting cigarettes from a gold case, and haughtily refusing to surrender his claim to Dido, even when her sister, Anna, practically flings herself at him as a consolation prize. As Anna, Karen MacDonald provides sisterly loyalty as well as palpable pining for Iarbas. (There is a terrific moment when the two are thrown together before the ever-present Cupid and you can see Kelly’s imp consider matching them up, then decide it’s more fun to let tragedy take its course.) Brent Harris broods watchfully as Aeneas’s lieutenant, Achates, who’s stonily eager for his general to shake the effeminate allure of Carthage and get on with the manly business Jove demands. As a muscular, golden-hued Hermes, Sam Chase gets bigger wings than Cupid’s, but for all the Tony Kushner accouterment, his character remains a Western Union minion among seriously manipulative deities.

One might wish that everything in this Dido were as captivating as its Cupid and the "Carthage Consort of Viols," three women playing period ditties arranged by musical director Laura Jeppesen after the manner of early 17th-century composers William Lawes, Matthew Locke, and Thomas Weelkes. (Weelkes, though more famous for his madrigals, also wrote for viols.) But the ART provides us a rare glimpse of a work that echoes in theater history, recycling not only Virgil but also Marlowe’s own poetry as it prefigures Shakespearean comedy, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Marlowe gears up for, among other works, Dr. Faustus, in which Mephistopheles makes him do it, here, given a little tweaking by Bartlett and a childlike yet devilish performance by Kelly, it’s Cupid — androgynous cross between Puck and Curious George — who pulls the human strings until they snap.

Issue Date: March 18 - 25, 2005
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